While best known for ‘literary fiction’, Joanne Harris has written across a range of genres, and The Gospel of Loki is her third book to heavily feature Norse mythology. Previous novels Runemarks and Runelight are straight-up fantasy with a Norse flavour, while here she sets out to retell the sagas of the Norse gods from the perspective of Loki, the trickster, offering a reversal of the usual viewpoint. Covering the whole story, from the Nine Worlds’ creation through to Ragnarok, Loki tells his own version of events, showing Odin and the rest of the gods in a totally different light.
It’s a great idea – providing a fun, entertaining take on a mythology that’s as popular as it’s ever been (largely thanks to Marvel), with the twist of showing events from the perspective of about the least reliable narrator imaginable. Arrogant and self-satisfied, with tongue firmly in cheek, Loki’s narration very much sets the tone of the book, keeping things breezy and light throughout. It makes for a really accessible read, especially compared to tackling the original sagas, Harris cherry-picking a selection of events from across Loki’s history and stringing them together into a loose plot, linked by the dubious prophecy of Mimir’s Head and the inevitability of Loki’s demon nature.
Sadly though, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. When it works it’s good fun, and Loki is undoubtedly a great character, especially when he’s at his mischievous best. At times the narration really feels sharp and irreverent – much like Lucifer’s in I, Lucifer – but too often Loki ends up sounding bitter, self-pitying and unconvincing, and while the pace remains pretty speedy throughout, too often the story feels shallow and repetitive. That’s understandable given the nature of both the source material and what she was trying to achieve, but with little in the way of character development (Thor is fat and stupid, Heimdall is always suspicious, Freyja is vain and self-centred, etc.) and the plot being basically just one adventure/disaster strung into the next, what starts off as fresh and interesting soon starts to feel a little stale and unengaging.
Overall it’s a valiant effort with some great ideas, but despite Harris’ obvious skill with language and her clear love for the source material the whole thing just doesn’t quite work. There are some great concepts involved, straight out of the original sagas – the runes, the ambiguity of Odin and his past, the origins of the Nine Worlds – but it’s only a short book and in trying to tell the whole story it feels as though there’s so much crammed in that nothing really gets enough attention. It’s enjoyable enough as a quick read but unfortunately feels too modern to be ‘authentic’ to the sagas, but a bit too shallow to really satisfy as a modern novel.